The Pentagon has developed a prototype robotic "pack mule" capable of standing up, lying down and following troops as it carries a cool 400 pounds of military gear.
According to DARPA program manager Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, today's troops are often saddled with more than 100 pounds of gear, which understandably results in physical strain, fatigue and degraded
As such, DARPA is testing a highly mobile, semi-autonomous legged robot, the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), with the eventual goal of integrating with a squad of Marines or Army personnel.
Recently, the LS3 prototype underwent its first outdoor exercise, demonstrating its ability to follow a person using its "eyes" - sensors that allow the robot to distinguish between trees, rocks, terrain obstacles and people.
Additional features to be tested in future trials include the ability to carry 400lbs on a 20-mile trek in 24-hours without being refueled, tracking a specific individual or object and autonomously making required course corrections as needed.
Also planned is the addition of "hearing" technology, enabling squad members to speak commands to LS3 such as "stop," "sit" or "come here." In addition, the robot serves as a mobile auxiliary power source - allowing troops to recharge batteries for radios and handheld devices while on patrol.
Eventually, DARPA hopes the LS3 will be capable of carrying a considerable load from dismounted squad members, follow them through rugged terrain and interact with military personnel in a natural way - similar to the way a trained animal and its handler interact.
"If successful, this could provide real value to a squad while addressing the military's concern for unburdening troops," Hitt explained. "LS3 seeks to have the responsiveness of a trained animal and the carrying capacity of a mule."
The 18-month platform-refinement test cycle, with Marine and Army involvement, kicks off this summer. The tests culminate in a planned capstone exercise where LS3 will embed with Marines conducting field exercises.
LS3 is based on mobility technology advanced by DARPA's Big Dog technology demonstrator, as well other DARPA robotics programs which developed the perception technology for LS3's "eyes" and planned "ears."